Yep, the NPR Jazz Critics Poll helps us sort out all the annual action. I cast my ballot for these babies below. Please do make time to read Francis Davis’ thoughts on 2015’s music and this season’s voting trends. It was fun to participate. Watch this space. My pop list is coming soon. Back to doing the holiday dishes…
Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things – A New Kind of Dance (482)
As it twists and turns – and from tempo to groove to attitude, it’s always in motion – the Chicago drummer’s frolicsome program doesn’t waste a second in its goal to woo listeners. Its concision is beat only by its vigor. Call it freebop at its feistiest (and for a few moments, at its most romantic), using overt dance music traditions from the Balkans and South Africa as triggers for improv. The twin saxes of Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman continuously bubble over, but true scrutiny tells us that the rhythm section is goosing everything here. Things get especially animated when guests Marquis Hill and Matthew Shipp stop by.
Gary Peacock – Now This (ECM)
Let’s kick off an adjective parade. Supple, alert, blithe, clever, erudite, keen, intuitive, dreamy, shrewd, determined, okay okay you get it – the 80-year-old bassist has a touch that fits myriad situations. Enhanced by drummer Joey Baron’s mercurial flow, Peacock’s latest music is pensive, genteel and deliciously fluid. It’s tethered only to the thoughts at hand the sketches that the trio come up with – each charming in its own way. For players like these – and boy, pianist Marc Copland is beguiling throughout – ample elbow room becomes a playground full of options.
Michael Bates – Northern Spy (Stereoscopic)
The blues ain’t dead. The Brooklyn bassist toured his cheeky little trio this summer and crowds reacted to the gutbucket grooves and soulful wailing of saxophonist Michael Blake. It’d be hard not to. A quarter century of freebop interests have honed Blake’s POV, which stretches from sentiment for Hawk and Pres (don’t miss his own Tiddy Boom) to overt squall-a-thons. Prioritizing panache, Bates and drummer Jeremy Clemons bust some itchy bottom moves that take the music even further than you initially suspect. With coordination spiked by whomp, all three move as one – a simple album that’s definitely not lacking in scope.
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – You’ve Been Watching Me (ECM)
The attractions of tumult are many, and as Berne becomes a more articulate composer with each passing year, the gnarled fantasias he pens for this far-reaching quintet take on an eloquence chock with idiosyncrasy. Textural breadth is key; please say hi to percussionist Ches Smith’s timpani, guitarist Ryan Ferreira’s string skronk and pianist Matt Mitchell’s left hand cannon blasts. But aura is just as exciting. Shards of minimalism, cranky melodies and great gusts of abstract noir unite to tell a larger story – each is driven by a crazed volition. Some sections remind me of the images Berne shot for his other 2015 project, Spare, a book of photos and drawings made in cahoots with his illustrator/designer mate, Steve Byram. Snakeoil has a live CD attached to that gorgeous package as well, and when played at the right volume, it can tear your head off.
Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth – Epicenter (Clean Feed)
One of those bands that woos you in six different ways at once. Its starts with consonance. Regardless of how many friction points pop up along the way – and Bigmouth is expert at nuanced counterpoint and surprise juxtapositions – unity always drives the quintet’s forward motion. When saxophonists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek touch down on the same plane the emotional impact of their resolutions is powerful.
Henry Threadgill’s Zooid – In For a Penny, In For a Pound (Pi)
At first I wasn’t feeling the maestro’s vigor in this rather typical web of interplay; performance-wise it felt a bit anemic. But by the fourth go-round my ears recalibrated and its chamber slant emerged. Bluster is banished here. With tuba, guitar, drums, cello, and the boss’s woodwinds, Team Threadgill is a band that sounds like no other working right now. On this rambling suite of sorts, it lets a measured approach signify the music’s sense of intricacy and, ultimately, wisdom. Call it a five-level chess game where the pieces are always in play.
Rudresh Mahanthappa – Bird Calls (ACT)
Sometimes you just want to be knocked around a bit. Mahanthappa’s squad has no problem fulfilling such requests. Their attack is ferocious; as the saxophonist breaks off bits of Charlie Parker’s DNA to form his kaleidoscopic updates, it’s easy to recall those stories of how bop was such an unmistakably physical music, and why Bird’s fleet wail was so alarming for early audiences. The fact that Mahanthappa personalizes the vibe with nods to his South Indian heritage only supercharges the action. Secret weapon: Adam O’Farrill.
Vijay Iyer Trio – Break Stuff (ECM)
The celebrated pianist is a perennial poll-topper, but there’s nothing knee-jerk about this placement. Iyer’s trio fine-tuned its approach yet again this year, arriving at a program that’s ultra-seductive in design. Sequencing has a lot to do with it. The temperament of the tracks perpetually shift, but each transition is inspired. Whether it’s a dreamy update of Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” or the glitchy techno nod of “Hood,” each of its moods are distinctive and all sound inspired thanks to cagey alignment. They also crushed it live.
The bassist knows about casting. This outfit, with vocalist Jen Shyu, pianist Andy Milne and drummer Billy Drummond, isn’t representative of any modern jazz movement or clique. Hébert began the project wanting to throw some shine on Carmen McRae’s radiance, and perhaps put his own spin on a standard or two. Choosing these cats was wise – together they sound unique. Somehow Catpower got folded in with Carmen, and the arrival of a few originals reminded that the leader’s architectural vision has as much to do with mood as it does melody. I often played this in tandem with Shyu’s marvelous Sounds and Cries of the World (Pi), a delightful refraction of Indonesian and Korean folk music she went and investigated first hand.
Maria Schneider Orchestra – The Thompson Fields (artistShare)
Some music just swoops down and whisks you away. Those confronted with a lack of overt beauty in their lives need only turn to the composer-arranger’s meditation on Minnesota farm roots, as vivid a sound portrait as Ellington’s “Harlem Air Shaft” or Mingus’ “Hell View of Bellevue (Lock ‘Em Up).” Interpreting the charts – which also salute the power of Midwest storms and the passing of two of her favorite musicians – Schneider’s 18-piece outfit invests in grandeur and relies on perpetual lyricism to carry the day.
At any given moment, these coulda hit the list. They are beauties all:
Mario Pavone, Blue Dialect (Clean Feed); Matthew Shipp Trio, The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear); JD Allen, Graffiti (Savant); Noah Preminger, Pivot: Live at the 55 Bar (self-released); Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance, Synovial Joints (Pi); Mary Halvorson, Meltframe (Firehouse 12); Amir ElSaffar, Crisis (Pi); Nate Wooley Quintet, (Dance To) The Early Music (Clean Feed); Jon Lundbom, Jeremiah (Hot Cup); David Berkman, Old Friends and New Friends (Palmetto); Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap, The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Columbia); Food, This is not a miracle (ECM); Terrence McManus & John Hebert, Saints and Sinners (McManus); Jack DeJohnette, Made in Chicago (ECM).